COVID-19: Swiss aid for overburdened hospitals in India

The COVID-19 health crisis in India has been intensifying dramatically over the past few weeks. Switzerland is responding and providing aid. A Swiss cargo plane headed for New Delhi took off from Zurich at noon today with medical supplies, including 50 ventilators from the Armed Forces Pharmacy and oxygen concentrators. Manuel Bessler, head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid, is coordinating this relief operation. In this interview, he shares some background information.

Switzerland is supplying 600 oxygen concentrators and 50 ventilators to India to help alleviate the humanitarian emergency related to COVID-19. © FDFA

Thursday, 6 May 2021, Zurich Airport: The occasional traveller strolls through the check-in areas in search of a coffee shop and a last snack. The only evidence of COVID-19 is face masks, spacing marks and the negative PCR tests shown during check-in. Almost unnoticed, an Airbus 330 takes off at 2.59pm with 13 tonnes of relief supplies on board. It is headed to New Delhi, some 6,000 kilometres away, where the COVID-19 situation stands in stark contrast to Switzerland's.

In India, the crisis is coming to a head. The country has been announcing new records in the number of COVID-19 cases almost every day. On Saturday, 1 May 2021, India became the world's first country to report over 400,000 new infections in one day. The state's healthcare system is in crisis. The hospitals are full to the brim. In large cities, queuing COVID-19 patients are turned away at hospitals, because there is no room for them. Oxygen, vaccines and medicines are lacking almost everywhere, pushing up the death toll wrought by this respiratory illness. One tragic statistic tops the last one in short succession.

13 tonnes of material are loaded into a Swiss Airbus 330.
13 tonnes of relief supplies for India, including 600 oxygen concentrators and 50 ventilators, are loaded into a Swiss Airbus at Zurich airport. © FDFA

Switzerland is helping to alleviate the humanitarian emergency in India

Immediately responding to the Indian government's appeal for international assistance, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), already offered Swiss humanitarian aid – medical supplies worth CHF 1 million – on 27 April 2021. The Indian government accepted Switzerland's offer right away last week. We have interviewed Manuel Bessler, head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid, to get some background information on this humanitarian relief operation.

 Portrait of Manuel Bessler, Head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid, at a press conference
Manuel Bessler, Head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid © Keystone

Mr Bessler, first question: Why is Switzerland helping India?

"After the Indian government's call for help, we analysed the needs on the ground, together with our representation in New Delhi and the Indian Red Cross. We then immediately started to procure the urgently needed relief supplies. Switzerland can help and Switzerland wants to help. Our delivery of relief supplies to India is an expression of solidarity during the pandemic and in keeping with Switzerland's humanitarian tradition."

Our delivery of relief supplies to India is an expression of solidarity during the pandemic and in keeping with Switzerland's humanitarian tradition.
Manuel Bessler, Head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid

Can you tell us a bit about the relief supplies being delivered to New Delhi today?

"We are delivering a total of 600 oxygen concentrators – devices that obtain medical oxygen from ambient air – and 50 ventilators, which the DDPS is providing from the Armed Forces Pharmacy's procurements. We chose these supplies in close consultation with the Indian Red Cross. The total value of the medical supplies sent by Switzerland is around CHF 3 million. A significant proportion of this amount was covered by the DDPS, which donated the respirators for patients in intensive care. Swiss Humanitarian Aid, which is part of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), mobilised additional funds to purchase the remaining supplies, in particular the oxygen concentrators, and to cover transport costs."

Who is monitoring the distribution of these supplies on the ground?

"The Swiss embassy in New Delhi is taking all necessary measures to ensure that the relief supplies reach their destination. The Indian Red Cross will collect the supplies at the capital's airport. Then, the local health ministry will organise the distribution of the equipment to hospitals that need it most."

At 1.44 am (local time), the Swiss Airbus landed in New Delhi with medical supplies. © FDFA

Was this relief operation a logistical challenge?

"Yes, it required a lot of coordination here in Switzerland, as well as on the ground with our embassy in New Delhi and the Indian authorities. We received the ventilators free of charge from the Armed Forces Pharmacy. The other supplies had to be purchased in Switzerland from private companies. It was very important to have all the supplies arrive at Zurich Airport in time for today's charter flight, which we had to organise with Swiss. Doing all of this in the midst of the pandemic was, of course, very challenging for everyone involved."

Impartiality and solidarity: Switzerland's humanitarian tradition

Switzerland's good reputation abroad is based in part on its humanitarian tradition. In its Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23 (FPS), the Federal Council states that Switzerland is to show solidarity by providing impartial assistance in crisis situations, in armed conflicts, during disasters and also in humanitarian emergencies. The focus is on people's needs to guarantee their safety, dignity and rights. 

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